The story of a fake.

by Justin Kerr

First Published in mexicon , 1992.

About ten years ago, we were shown a group of fake Maya vases. The style was so distinctive that we called the group "The Acrylic School of Maya Vase Painting." From time to time additional examples from this workshop came to our attention from many parts of the United States and from other parts of the world. At one of the Austin Meetings, I was shown photographs of a group of ninety of these vases that had been collected in the belief that the owner was assembling the largest group of Maya vases in the United States. It was at that meeting that I was also shown photographs of a number of fake codices that had been painted by the same acrylic workshop. This workshop had even gone so far as to create a vase with a pornographic scene.

The first group of these vases was fairly easy to identify. as they had been copied from well known published vases including some that were excavated at Tikal. These vases were painted on ancient ceramics that had been scraped or sandblasted to remove any old painting and to prepare a new fresh surface. This technique made it easy for the seller of these fakes to "prove" they were real by having them tested using "Tbermo

As more of these vases came to our attention we realized that the workshop had changed their scope of imagery. They were no longer directly copying published material, but were now making inventive new scenes and combining them with parts of published scenes. By and large, they modeled their paintings on a number of so-called Black Background vases. The technique and style is very dynamic, with depictions of Och Chan (The Bearded Dragon) and many lords and ladies. Very often the palette used is quite colorful with admixtures of pinks, yellows, and greens in tke headdresses and floral decorations.

With this history in mind, it was a surprise to see, in the collection of the Department of Archaeology of Belize, one of these vases (below). At the time that we were first shown the vase, we did not know that it had a PNK (provenience not known) number.

This, of course, created a conflict, for how was it possible for an acrylic vase to have been excavated, unless it had been "salted" in a dig. "Salting a dig" is a technique where looters bring a unsuspecting buyer to a site where material has previously been buried, and then dug up before his eyes, "proving" the objects are real. We examined the Belizean vase closely, but it was not until we inquired about its provenience, and we were told that it had been confiscated, that we suggested that the vase was not a genuine Maya artifact. We were then informed that the vase had been published in mexicon in May of 1987 (mexicon Vol. IX, No. 3). The Belizean authorities asked us to prove the case and we proceeded in this manner.

1. The shape of the vessel was very unusual for highland Guatemala.

2. It is very rare, but not unknown, for a vase to have a glyph band both at the top and bottom.

3. The glyphs make no sense.

4. The MOL circles on knees and elbows are wrong.

5. The colors of the vase painting are incorrect.

6. The paint was peeling and was easily dissolved with a bit of acetone.

The fact that the paint dissolved made it obvious to all present that the vase was, in fact, a fake. A number of genuine shards were brought in and the students were shown the difference in the way the genuine material reacted, as opposed to the fake vase. However, there are schools of forgers that are firing their wares and these do not react to the "acetone" test. In those cases, it is necessary to expand our knowledge of iconography and epigraphy in order to recognize counterfeit material. We should rely on physical tests such as chemicals and thermo

Conclusion: The Belizean polychrome vase, PNK956, (Kerr file no. 5655) illustrated in the May 1987 issue, is a total fake.